Ways to Embrace Aging in This Youth-Obsessed Culture
There is much to value as you look within and honor your strengths
When you look in the mirror and expect to see a younger version of yourself but, instead, someone with worry lines and crow’s feet stares back, it can be disheartening. Because our culture values youth and beauty over age and experience, you may have unknowingly convinced yourself that getting older means you’ll soon be marginalized and obsolete. What can you do to feel empowered and relevant instead?
The key is changing your mindset, allowing yourself to embrace a positive attitude toward aging and staying active in the ways that matter to you.
“When people say they want to be younger, what they really mean is they want to be more like they were, physically, when they were younger,” says Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University, who studies the ways people’s attitudes toward aging affect their mental and physical health. “Despite what people say, few people want to give up all the experience and growth they’ve accumulated over the years.”
The following are some ideas on how you can embrace aging in this youth-centric culture:
Let Go of Outdated Notions
Don’t identify with outdated stereotypes about older adults. Just because you’ve hit a milestone birthday doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be active or involved anymore. Today, people stay in the workforce longer and take better care of themselves than previous generations did.
“I think, years ago, we used to think about retirement as sitting in your rocking chair,” says Arthur Kramer, professor of neuroscience at Northeastern University in Boston and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois in Urbana. “The people I know now who are retired are more active than when they were working 40 hours a week.”
Decades ago, more people were secretive about their ages. Today, many older adults feel comfortable enough embracing their years to let their hair go gray, demonstrating that their life experience is an asset, not something to be ashamed of.
“People are not aging the way that their parents and grandparents were aging,” Langer says. “The model for what it means to be older is changing. Eighty is the new 60.”
Adjust Your Attitude
Research has confirmed the long-held belief that you’re only as old as you feel. Studies have shown that as people age, they identify less and less with their actual ages. Feeling more youthful can have protective effects against depression, dementia and more.
“I think I am healthier, happier and stronger than I was at 40,” says Noelle Nelson, author of Happy Healthy… Dead: Why What You Think You Know About Aging Is Wrong and How To Get It Right. “My knees aren’t as good as they were in my 40s, but they’re good enough, and I don’t care. When you start looking at ‘What’s good in my life? What’s good in my body?’ you become more and more of an optimist.”
Feeling able is an important factor. Researchers have found that older people who are healthy and active say they feel younger than they are, while younger people with chronic health conditions say they feel older than they are.
Liking how you look helps, too. In one study, women who said they felt younger after they’d gotten their hair done looked younger to independent observers; they also experienced decreases in their blood-pressure levels.
Pop Culture Icons Provide Examples
Today, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Lily Tomlin, Morgan Freeman and Robert DeNiro star in films and TV series emphasizing their advanced years, but not as dowdy grandmas or grumpy old men. They’re showing that older adults can be sexy, strong and in charge of their lives. Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Stevie Nicks and Cyndi Lauper still command concert stages, proving that you can be relevant — and a rock star — when you’re older.
“I hear people say, ‘Isn’t it amazing that they can still do this?’” Kramer says. “As long as you stay as healthy as you can and stay engaged in life, the visions of what we’re starting to look like are going to change.”
Have Young and Old Friends
People with friends from different generations tend to feel younger than those whose friends are all their age. Younger friends may help you try new things or challenge long-held beliefs. Older friends can serve as role models for aging gracefully.
“Read to school children (or) volunteer to distribute water at triathlons and races — something meaningful to you,” Nelson says. “Start surrounding yourself with active older adults who are happy to be alive. You will generally find there are plenty who are older than you, (and) more wrinkled than you who don’t care.”
Notice the World Around You
Being mindful can help you improve your mental and physical well-being. You don’t need to meditate to reap the benefits; just spend more time being in the moment.
“All you need to do is notice new things; that puts you in the present and makes you sensitive to context and perspective,” Langer says. “It increases your engagement. It’s literally and figuratively enlivening. (And) when you’re mindful, people find you charismatic and attractive, at any age.”
Find Your Passion
Whether you enjoy gardening, swimming or spending time with your grandkids, embracing what’s important to you can help you feel more youthful.
“Don’t so much focus on your years; put more focus on what you love to do,” Nelson says. “Find something that really, really turns you on, and go for it with every ounce of your being.”